Don’t Skip A Beat

March 2, 2020

Despite what romantic comedies might say, a skipped heartbeat is not cause for celebration. A rapid or irregular heartbeat can indicate atrial fibrillation, or AFib. It can increase the risk of stroke, heart failure and other complications, said Dr. Brett Bentley, assistant professor of family medicine and sports medicine at the College of Community Health Sciences, during a presentation at The University of Alabama’s OLLI program.

Many of the OLLI participants who attended indicated that they were being treated for atrial fibrillation. Bentley detailed the diagnosis, medications and surgical interventions that can be used to manage AFib.

Atrial fibrillation is often described by patients as having a flip-flopping sensation or racing heartbeat, said Bentley. It can increase fatigue, cause dizziness, reduce exercise tolerance and lead to shortness of breath.

The root cause of AFib is when the two upper chambers of the heart receive irregular electrical signals. The signals throw the whole system off its normal rhythm. The risk of AFib increases with age, high blood pressure and heart disease, Bentley said.

Treatment relies on resetting the heart’s rhythm and controlling the rate while also avoiding blood clots that can lead to stroke. The exact treatment plan depends on the patient’s individual needs, Bentley said.

“If your treatment is working, I wouldn’t recommend making a change,” Bentley said. Patients often want to reduce their medications, but if there aren’t severe side effects and the treatment is working, the medication should be continued. Without the medication, the problem will come back, and the risk of stroke will increase, Bentley said.

In some cases, medication alone is enough to manage the condition, but some patients may need surgical intervention, such as a catheter ablation, maze procedure or atrial appendage occlusion. A cardiac specialist can help a patient make the best choice for his or her condition, Bentley said.

Bentley’s lecture was part of the Mini Medical School program, a collaboration of OLLI and the College. Mini Medical School provides an opportunity for adults and community learners to explore trends in medicine and health, and the lectures offer important information about issues and advances in medicine and research.